As Boston’s extensive December road stretch winds down, Dan Greenberg of Barstool Sports and I sit down to discuss the current state of the team and what they must improve on moving forward in the second episode of the Hardwood Houdini Podcast.
The last month has been a busy one for the travel-weary Boston Celtics, who have endured two separate trips to Florida and Texas, midwestern stints in Oklahoma City, Indiana, and Memphis, and quick trips down Interstate 95 in Philadelphia and New York. Overall, the team has utilized this opportunity to scour the country as a bonding experience, building team chemistry while also racking up a 8-5 December record and an impressive 12-7 overall road win-loss total.
Now, as the holidays come to a close, the Celtics can look forward to sleeping in there own beds for the majority of January. Following a flight to challenge the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night, Boston returns to the TD Garden, where they will play 11 of their next 15 games. Thus far in 2016-17, home has not been particularly kind to the Celtics, as they have won just 6 of their 12 games on Legends Way. However, this can be attributed to a small sample size as well as the quality of opponents that the team has hosted.
Three of Boston’s six home defeats thus far have come against contenders such as the San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, and Oklahoma City Thunder, games in which the Celtics kept pace with their opponent throughout before barely succumbing in the fourth quarter. However, the team has also been able to knock off teams in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. They handled the New York Knicks by a large margin in November before defeating the Charlotte Hornets on December 16, two squads which could challenge the Celtics for a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference as the postseason arrives. Both of these victories were significant for tiebreaker purposes concerning the playoff race, as Boston is now a combined 4-0 against Charlotte, who currently sits fourth in the East, and New York, who places fifth in the East as of now, 1.5 games behind the Celtics in the standings.
Boston will have the opportunity to distance themselves further from this pair of teams in the coming weeks, as the Celtics play host to Charlotte of January 16 and New York two days later. Also, the team will be able to test their meddle against a few of the Western Conference’s elite with the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets coming to town. Currently, the Celtics are just 4-8 against Western Conference opponents, having been dumped twice each by the Thunder, allowing 82 combined points by MVP candidate Russell Westbrook, and the Spurs, yielding 51 combined points to small forward Kawhi Leonard.
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The home stretch should also allow the Celtics to expand their rotation. Recently, Boston has been tasked with a plethora of foes contending for playoff positioning, handcuffing them from handing young guns such as Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Jordan Mickey the chance to improve on their confidence in the latter portion of decided games. Their average scoring margin of +1.8 underlines the fact that the Celtics have found themselves in the midst of a multitude of hotly contested bouts. With the exception of a 30-point drubbing of the Orlando Magic on December seventh, each of Boston’s December contests have been decided by 10 points or less.
Receiving the opportunity to host underachieving squads such as the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, New Orleans Pelicans, and Portland Trail Blazers in addition to another tilt with Orlando should provide the Celtics with some breathing room towards the final quarter of games that they should win handily. However, while Boston overrides these sub-.500 teams by a significant margin on paper, they have scuffled to handle them convincingly so far this season. The Celtics fell to the Pelicans in November despite receiving 37 points from Isaiah Thomas while shunning the 76ers by just a single point earlier this month. Miami also posed a significant challenge to the Celtics on December 18, riding a 30-19 third quarter to force Boston head coach Brad Stevens to keep his starters playing in the fourth quarter in a game that the Celtics won, 105-95. This came after a November 28 matchup that Boston won by just eight points.
Despite Boston’s inability to defeat these teams by a substantial margin, it must be noted that the team did not have their desired starting five participating in the majority of the these tilts. When the teams optimum lineup of Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Al Horford and Amir Johnson is intact to begin a game, the Celtics are 12-4, an encouraging sign moving forward.